Tikal National Park is the home of some of the oldest Mayan ruins in Guatemala, which are also some of the most well-preserved and most famous Mayan ruins in the world. Seeing the Mayan ruins was the primary reason I traveled to Guatemala, so I was excited to finally arrive and have the chance to learn more about this mysterious ancient culture. There are only two flights per day from Guatemala City to Flores, the nearest airport and town from Tikal National Park. It is approximately a one hour flight. I took the early morning flight arriving in Flores around 8:00am. Tikal is then another one hour drive from the airport. Most people visiting Tikal opt to stay for just one day seeing the main ruins in Tikal. I decided to go for two days to have an extra day to get off of the beaten path a bit by visiting the nearby archaeological site Uaxactun. Until 1984, the only way to access Uaxactun was by a five hour trek through the jungle from Tikal. Now there is a small dirt/mud road that can get you there in about an hour.
The ruins at Uaxactun are not as well-preserved as at Tikal, but I enjoyed visiting Uaxactun just as much as Tikal. Uaxactun is not in the itinerary of most visitors to this area, meaning that my guide and I were the only visitors there the whole day. Uaxactun is older than Tikal. Some of the structures at Uaxactun date as far back as 200 B.C. and are still in surprisingly good condition considering their age and despite being heavily looted over the years.
Nestled in the middle of the Uaxactun excavation site is a tiny rural village. There once was a small airstrip here that was the only way in and out of the area. That was closed down before the dirt road was built, leaving these locals isolated in the jungle with the ruins. We went for a short walk through the village and it felt like jumping into a time machine and going back in time. The locals we ran into all knew my guide and welcomed us with kind greetings.
The classic period of Mayan culture dates back as far as 900 B.C., according to my guide Francisco. The Mayan buildings in this area of Guatemala date back to between 200 B.C. and 700 A.D.. The Mayan people lived in the area which is today known as Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They were highly advanced in terms of architecture, mathematics and astrology. My guide Francisco is of Mayan decent and has been taking people to these ruins for over forty years. He said it is still a mystery how they could have become so intellectually advanced so long ago without all of the technology we have today. No one quite knows for sure how it was possible. Unfortunately when the Spanish arrived much of the documentation of their culture and knowledge was systemically destroyed. Maybe one day we will find the secret answers to the Mayan ancient knowledge. I met one fellow traveler while I was there who believes the Mayans were assisted by aliens. What do you think?
On day two I woke up at 3:30am to hike up to the top of the tallest temple in the ruins, Temple IV, to catch the sunrise. Despite the fog that morning, it was still well worth it. There was a small group of maybe ten people or so who showed up with the same idea. I did a short archeological tour with the park guide Eddie in the morning so I could head back to the park in the afternoon to venture off on my own. I spent the next six hours wandering through the park and was able to see just about everything on my map.
After sunrise I began with a visit to Temple VI. A thirty minute walk from the Grand Plaza down a slippery and muddy jungle path, Temple VI is the most remote area of the ruins.
Making things interesting, little Pizote critters were everywhere! They did not seem to mind humans at all – walking right up to me and around me. I think they must have been hoping for food…
My favorite temple was Temple V. The main attraction in the park is the Grand Square with Temples I and II. I preferred Temple V though; as it is farther away, it is less visited by the masses. I didn’t see anyone else at Temple V or on the path through the jungle leading to Temple V. Temple V is also a large structure in quite good condition. I like the design with the majestic oversized staircase leading to the small chamber on top, giving it a powerful presence.
After Temple V, I decided to head all the way across to the other side of the park to the most remote area on the opposite side. After a one hour hike I arrived at a collection of structures called the North Group. I was the only person there, too.
I then returned to Temple IV, where I climbed up to see the sunrise that morning, to get another bird’s eye view in the afternoon sun without the fog, with a view of the tops of Temples I and II in the Grand Square, Temple III just before that, and off to the right, the Temple of the Lost World rising above the tree line canopy. Tower IV is the tallest of all of the towers in Tikal standing at 65 meters tall. I found out the view from Temple IV was featured in the movie Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. I wondered if there was some connection, both being titled “IV” and a…
On my way to the Grand Square, which was to be my last stop of the day, I took a wrong turn and got lost in the jungle. After wandering around for a bit I ended up finding myself back at the (appropriately named for my circumstance) Lost World.
How lucky I was to get lost, though, as I came across a little monkey casually hanging out on the ground by a tree enjoying some snacks. He did not seem to mind my presence at all while he was munching away. I had not seen any monkeys on the ground all day – he was the first. I suspect he ventured down as it was already past 4:00pm and most people had already left. These guys must know it is safe to go to the ground floor for a look around after the humans leave. A few of his friends later came to join him and they left together through the tree tops.
I saved the most popular area for last, the Grand Plaza containing Temples I and II. Temple I is also known as the Great Jaguar Temple. It is the most well-known structure in all of Guatemala. The Great Jaguar Temple is 45 meters tall. Underneath the temple, the tomb chamber of one of the most famous rulers at Tikal was built.
Just across from the Grand Plaza from Temple I is Temple II. Temple II is known by the name of the Temple of the Masks or Faces. It is 38 meters high and was built in honor of the wife of the ruler HA CACAO.
While visiting Tikal I stayed in the Tikal Inn. I chose the Tikal Inn because it is one of only three hotels actually inside of Tikal National Park. There are cheaper options available in the nearby town of Flores, but I chose Tikal Inn for two reasons. First, because I was there for two full days I did not want to make the one hour drive back and forth every day from Flores to Tikal, rather opting for the freedom to spend all day, both days, in the park at my leisure. Second, I believe these ruins still retain some of the energy and spirit of the people who built them. I wanted to be closer to that energy for a longer period of time, not just a few hours. The nearby town of Flores is a small town with some interesting sights. From what I heard, a few hours there is sufficient. I unfortunately ended up not having time to visit Flores as I spent all of my time both days in the Maya ruins.
If you come to see the Tikal ruins with the intension of connecting with the Mayan people, I suggest you opt to put up a little bit more money and stay in one of the three hotels in the park. The hotel Tikal Inn I stayed in is tiny with just a few open air bungalows, and sorry for you comfort-loving folks, but there is no air conditioning and the electricity including wifi is only on from 6pm to 10pm. The staff is fantastic though, great food is included in the price, wild turkeys freely visit the grounds, and it has a little pool to refresh yourself in. The pool came in handy when the temperature gauge hit almost a 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon. A guided tour is a must to fully appreciate the wonders of this place. Ask for the official park guides Francisco and Eddie, both Mayan archeological experts and perfectly fluent in English for you non-Spanish speaking gringos like me. Also, remember to bring sunscreen and insect repellant. There are mosquitoes in the jungle and I am convinced the flies there have teeth.
Questions, comments, requests with something you would like me write about or suggestions of cool places I should definitely visit? Leave a comment and let me know! Please don’t be shy, I am happy to hear from you.
Next stop, San Salvador in El Salvador.
Greg Simon is “an independent thinking world traveler.” You can reach him at, www.knowmadiclife.com, www.facebook.com/gregory.loren.simon, or firstname.lastname@example.org.